Heavenly, social work is my career choice as well. I see you're a mother of three; I am as well. I've been a teen mom, I've been on welfare, I've been poor, I've been stressed and hungry, I've had to seriously think of where I'm going to live and what I'm going to do for money, all while having children. I've dealt with overzeolous case workers who I felt were just going through the motions and didn't care, store clerks who were rude to me because I looked so young and used WIC checks. I've had good days and bad days, made lots of mistakes, and did lots of things right. I've personally witnessed both excellent parenting and child abuse. I thank my life experience for giving me some wisdom to know the difference between behaving humanly and behaving abusively-and let me tell you, telling that difference can be an art, especially when the behavior lies somewhere in the grey area-and there is no guarantee that you'll be right. In reality, we can pick apart the OP's story and imagine what we might or might not have done in either side of the equation, the the truth is, none of us will ever have any clue because we weren't there.
For one mother, tossing a jacket on a toddler after he/she keeps throwing it on the ground might just be a sign of exasperation and being pushed to the limit. For another, it might stem from an inability to understand and empathize with normal toddler behavior. My point is, you can't think, well, if *I* saw that, I'd report it! Opening a CPS investigation is a big deal. Most social workers, from what I've seen, really and truly care about children. However, they don't always think about how the children feel about possibly being separated from their parents based on very shaky allegations that may or may not be supported with evidence, how important intact families are, and how traumatic any separation from their parents will be. Children can be removed needlessly for things that are in the grey area when no other risk factors are present, and it can scar families forever. It can cause anxiety, PTSD, depression, paranoia, and fear on both the part of the child and the parent. It's something that workers should really pause and think about before making a move to pull a child, and I'm not so convinced that a lot of them do. I don't think it's because they have an agenda against families-I think it's because they fail to see the big picture and focus on tiny details that may not be an issue at all. We've come to a point in our society where we judge people harshly for doing things that are human. It's human to be frustrated. It's human to get angry, and yes, it's part of parenting that we sometimes lose our patience with our children, and yes, it's sometimes in public. Because of widely publicized cases of child abuse, we are all too aware that little signs can be indicative of a much bigger problem. And that's a good thing. However, we can't ignore the human element. We have to place ourselves in that mother's position. We don't know how her day has gone, or how many stressers she's dealt with. If I saw a mother do something like the OP did, and felt like I had to say something, I'd probably simply offer a sympathetic word and see how she reacted. Truly abusive mothers tend to blame the child for being "bad", or express negative emotions even when met with kindness. Being antagonistic is certainly not a good way to approach anyone in any state of mind, especially when there is no visible immediate danger to the child.